Rhetoric moment: The key to writing a good essay
One key feature distinguishes the essay from other forms of writing: It must make a point. This point doesn’t have to be specifically stated, but it must always be there; there must always be an underlying “moral of the story” that gives meaning to the essay. In English composition, this underlying point is known as the thesis.
First, there’s figuring out exactly what point you want to make. It’s OK if you’re not exactly sure when you begin writing your essay. You may discover your true thesis somewhere along the line as you are writing. You may not even have a vague idea of your thesis at first, and it may be that through your writing you eventually arrive at a thesis.
Or you may start with a clear idea of what you want to prove, and that’s OK, too. Some people write better with the road map that a thesis provides. If you’re that sort of person, you might want to write out your thesis on a yellow sticky note and stick it to the frame of your computer monitor as you write, so you can keep on track.
Here are some characteristics of the thesis:
· It is a complete sentence. It contains a subject and a complete verb, and it can stand alone. “Pickup trucks” is not a thesis, since it’s not a complete sentence – it’s just a topic. On the other hand, “Pickup trucks are not just for cowboys any more” is a thesis, since it’s a complete sentence and it also meets the other criteria to be a thesis.
· It expresses an opinion, not a fact. If, on a clear day, I look out the window and say, “The sky is blue,” that is something that is observable and verifiable, and that is not subject to contradiction, except possibly by my teenage son, whose duty it is to contradict everything I say. Thus, “the sky is blue” is not a legitimate thesis.
· Not only does it express an opinion; it expresses an opinion that is debatable, that will not be automatically agreed with by just about everyone. I could say “Child abuse is bad,” and that would indeed be an opinion, since it involves a value judgment. But I’m not likely to find many people who would disagree with me. To be a good thesis, it has to be something about which there is disagreement. If, instead, I were to say, “Because child abuse is bad, parents who abuse their children should be sterilized,” then I would have a thesis, because I would have something that a lot of people would argue about.
· It can’t be a question. It must be a statement. However, if you have a question, the answer to it might be a good thesis. Thus, “Is democracy the best form of government?” is not a thesis, but if you answer either “Yes, it is,” or, more challenging to prove, “No, it isn’t,” you have a thesis. If you’re dealing with a controversial topic in which you’re trying to bring the opposing side to your point of view, you may leave the question unanswered at first and bring the reader to your answer by the end of the essay – but at some point you are going to have to answer the question and answer it clearly.
So having a good thesis is crucial to having a good essay. The second part of writing a good essay is proving that thesis.
This is where you start thinking like a lawyer. You’re Jack McCoy, and you’re presenting evidence to the jury to prove your case. (Yeah, I know, McCoy’s now the boss, so he’s not in the courtroom any more, but maybe you’re an assistant DA on his staff.) A good lawyer doesn’t say, “I just know John Doe shot Joe Blow, so there,” and then sit down. A good lawyer will present supporting evidence, such as ballistics reports that show the bullet found in Joe Blow’s body matches John Doe’s gun, and witnesses who saw the two men arguing just before the shots rang out, and so on and so forth. And the defense lawyer is going to present other evidence to try to prove that Doe didn’t shoot Blow, and you’ll have to counter that evidence.
When you’re writing your essay, you have to provide the same sort of supporting evidence that is needed in a criminal trial. And you have to anticipate what the opposition is likely to say, and refute that point of view. You want to present solid evidence, and you want to explain it thoroughly, and you want to make sure that the evidence that you present counters the evidence that the other side presents.
This even goes to the structure of the essay. In a trial, the lawyers start by explaining what they’re going to prove and how they’re planning to prove it. Then they go through all of the evidence, the witnesses, the expert testimony, and all of that stuff. Then, at the end of the trial, they sum everything up for the jury, to remind the jury of all of the testimony and evidence that has been presented – and they try to end on a note that resounds with the jury. That’s just the same as the introduction, body, and conclusion of an essay.
So when you’re writing an essay, stop thinking of yourself as writing something nice to please your instructor. Think of yourself as a lawyer proving your case. Give me solid evidence that’s going to make an impact on the jury.
The big difference, if you’re writing an essay, is that you may not be dealing with life-or-death or earth-shaking issues. “Pickup trucks are not just for cowboys any more”: Present evidence to show that these versatile vehicles are great for housewives taking large dogs to the vet, and for teenagers and young adults who give them spiffy paint jobs and lots of chrome and cruise up and down Montgomery every Friday and Saturday night. “Setting up a salt-water aquarium is a fun and rewarding hobby”: Give lots of evidence to show how much you have enjoyed setting up your own aquarium.
So that’s the key to writing an essay – have a point to prove, and provide evidence to prove it.